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Republican House leadership moves Organization Day to outdoor setting amid virus surge

  • Of the 400 N.H. House members, 395 were in attendance during Organization Day in 2018 to vote for speaker and secretary of state. Geoff Forester

Monitor staff
Published: 11/30/2020 12:25:43 PM

The incoming leadership of the New Hampshire House and Senate have opted to move Wednesday’s Organization Day to an outdoor venue, amid an ongoing second surge of COVID-19.

The full body of the newly-elected House and Senate was scheduled to meet Dec. 2 at the basketball court at the Hamel Recreation Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. That day, “Organization Day” is the first official meeting of the new legislature, and the one where the House Speaker, House Clerk, Senate President, Secretary of State, and State Treasurer get elected. 

But in a joint statement Sunday evening, House Republican Leader Dick Hinch and Republican Minority Leader Chuck Morse, said that “out of an abundance of caution,” the venue for all 424 representatives and senators, plus staff, would be moved outside.

“It is our responsibility to conduct Organization Day according to the constitutional requirement that it be held on the first Wednesday of December,” Hinch and Morse said in a statement. “But it is also our responsibility to conduct it as safely as possible during the COVID pandemic. An outdoor venue will lower the risk for all members and staff.”

The House was expected to meet in an area where field hockey is typically played. The forecast calls for sunny skies and a high of 45 degrees.

“People will be bundling up. I think we could relax our dress codes so people can dress appropriately,” said Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a Concord Democrat whose term as House speaker ends Tuesday. Shurtleff was headed to Durham Monday morning to discuss logistics with leaders from the new Republican majority and other officials.

Lawmakers who refuse to wear masks are expected to be segregated in a separate area.

Hinch and Morse phrased the move as a “request” and thanked UNH for accommodating it. Both Hinch and Morse are expected to be elected to leadership roles when their party takes over on Wednesday – Hinch to House Speaker and Morse to Senate President. 

The venue change came after pressure from other Republicans and threats by some Democrats that they would not show up to an indoor venue because of health concerns. 

The House of Representatives has met in person three times since the COVID-19 pandemic began – twice in June to wrap up session business and once in September to vote on Gov. Chris Sununu’s vetoed legislation.

All three times, the 400-member body met in the Whittemore Center Arena at the UNH Durham campus, sitting masked in the arena’s hockey rink in chairs six feet apart. 

But that venue was determined by incoming and outgoing State House leadership teams to be too cold to host the event since ice hockey season is underway. 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.) Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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